The Rolling Stones: Bridges To Babylon

The Rolling Stones Bridges To Babylon

On Voodoo Lounge the Rolling Stones tried their best to recreate the sound and production of their glory years. For the followup, Keith Richards wanted to bring Don Was back as producer but Mick Jagger had other ideas. Jagger, driven as always by a need to be seen as contemporary, wanted to bring in some young, cutting edge producers. The result was a compromise. Jagger would get his producers, but Don Was would be the “executive” producer overseeing the whole project. The result was an album that was as bloated and overlong as Voodoo Lounge, but had a fiercer set of songs and was less beholden to the need to sound retro.

While not really a return to classic form, Bridges To Babylon holds up as the best album they’d done since Some Girls. Granted, that’s not all that difficult. Still, there’s real grit on Bridges, unlike the cartoon-ish tough guy stances of Dirty Work.

The album launched with controversy. The first single, “Anybody Seen My Baby?” bore a striking resemblance to K.D. Lang’s “Constant Craving”. That chorus was so similar the album ended up being released with a co-writing credit for Lang on the song, meaning that Lang has as many co-writing credits with the Stones as Marianne Faithfull. The song isn’t particularly good, and features a cringe-inducing rap sample from Biz Markie, but it does have a really slinky bass line from Daryl Jones and an appropriately sleazy vocal from Jagger, who purrs the words like a cheetah sizing up an antelope. Charlie sounds like he was replaced with a metronome, his drumming lacking all of his usual character, and even the guitars are buried in the production. There’s some nice lead guitar work in the fade, but it’s mixed to be not much louder than the percussion that underlines the entire song.

Far better was the album’s opening track, “Flip The Switch”, which breaks out with Charlie, joined by Keith and Ron Wood, before Jagger comes in with full sneer. It’s a typically defiant Stones lyric, with the twist being that Jagger sings from the perspective of a man about to be executed. “Lethal injection is a luxury/I want to give it to the whole jury”, Jagger sings as Richards and Wood bounce dual lead/rhythms off each other, and the entire band sounds like they’re having the time of their lives just cutting loose. Sure, “Flip the Switch” has been accused of being a “Start Me Up” knockoff, but it’s got better lyrics, better guitar work, and rocks relentlessly…so who cares?

Richards and Wood also dominate “Low Down”, another rocker with deft interplay between the two guitarists. A close listening to the Stones in the Ronnie Wood era is like reading a textbook of how a two guitar lineup should work. It’s not the typical rhythm/lead trade-off that you find in the Mick Taylor era (and in almost all of rock history), with a virtuoso playing lead and a rhythm guitarist slashing the riffs. Wood and Richards play both lead and rhythm, each of them banging chords and playing different, complementary, riffs while unleashing brief flurries of lead work. Jagger’s in fine voice, as he is throughout the album, which features some of the last truly great singing he ever did, but “Low Down” is something of a rote rocker. It’s a good album filler track, and the chorus soars nicely, but there’s nothing really memorable about the song.

Jagger sings “Already Over Me” with a melodramatic, halting vocal that sounds like he’s on the verge of breaking down in tears, as if he’s overcome with emotion. It’s not really a particularly believable vocal coming from a notorious satyr like Mick Jagger. How much time would he spend crying over a woman who left him instead of merely promoting one of the other girls he’s got waiting in line? But whether you believe in Sad Sack Mick or not, it’s a fine ballad, with sweetly subtle piano from Blondie Chaplin and Charlie Watts playing a perfectly empathetic drum part. The closing refrain of Jagger plaintively repeating “What a fool I’ve been” is both a nice departure from his usual sex god persona and a timeless and very human thought. Anyone who’s ever loved and lost has felt this way.

The band cranks it up again on “Gunface”, a song that practically drips with malice and a genuine sense of menace. Directed not to a cheating lover, but rather to the man she’s cheating with, “Gunface” is a flat-out declaration that murder is the order of the day. The lyrics are intense and nasty, pregnant with the threat of impending violence, but they’re also more interesting than that. As the words spill out, Jagger’s voice drenched in scorn and hatred, he implies that he was once the other man (“I taught her everything/I taught her how to lie…I taught her everything/Yeah, I taught her how to cheat”) but that won’t save the man from certain death (“Your tongue licking way out of place/I’ll rip it out, yeah/I’ll put a gun in your face/You’ll pay with your life”). The band sound like legitimate bad boys here. Jagger’s snarling voice and the razor slashing of Keith and Ronnie Wood’s guitars, punctuated by Charlie’s staccato drum fills sounding like so many shots going off are far more convincing than anything dreamed up by bands like Motley Crüe. This is likely to do with their being steeped in the blues, the original bad boy music filled with tales of heartbreak, revenge, and murder. Ronnie’s wicked slide solo burns and ties the track back to the blues of their youth. “Gunface” is a modern rock take on songs like Howlin’ Wolf’s hellacious “Forty-Four”.

After a track that intense, Keith Richards brings down the intensity with the first of three (!) lead vocals on one of his beloved reggae numbers. “You Don’t Have To Mean It” is likely the best reggae song they released after 1974’s “Luxury”, but it also sounds like an outtake from one of Keith’s solo albums. Jagger is nowhere to be found, and the main musical hook of the song is a horn lick. Bernard Fowler and Blondie Chaplin provide the too smooth, too professional backing vocals that immediately make the song sound less like the Stones than they should. It’s a good song, but it could have been so much better with Jagger on backing vocals.

The Stones discovered reggae music in the 1970s, and the next track taps into their other  love from that decade, funk. With a bass line nicked from the Temptations classic “Papa Was A Rolling Stone”, “Out Of Control” tips its hat to performers like Curtis Mayfield in his Superfly days. before the chorus explodes into a more typical Stones-ish feel before settling back down into that funky vibe for the verses. Jagger also breaks out his harmonica, adding a touch of blues to the song, and reminding everyone that he’s a truly great harp player. “Out Of Control”, as well as “Saint Of Me”, got quite a bit of radio exposure back in the day, probably the last time the Stones could be considered radio stars before the internet blew up the music and communications industries.

What’s striking about “Saint Of Me” is the remarkable twist of the lyric. Jagger belts the chorus (“Yeah, oh yeah/You’ll never make a saint of me”) with pure defiance, like a challenge to God. He’s Big Bad Mick Jagger, after all, wearing his mantle of debauchery and dissolution. But the verses of the song can be seen almost as a prayer, seeking a better life and even sainthood. The prospect scares Jagger because he doesn’t want his head on a plate like the martyr John the Baptist, but he begins the song with accounts of famously sinful people who were shown the light. Literally in the case of “Paul the persecutor” who was hit “with a blinding light/And then his life began”. There’s also Augustine who “loved women, wine, and song”, much like a certain Rolling Stones singer, before becoming a saint.

Jagger asks himself if he could stand the trials of becoming a saint (“Could you stand the torture?…Could you put your faith in Jesus when you’re burning in the flames?”) and somewhat surprisingly answers, “I said yes.” He then goes on to say that he believes in miracles, and that he wants “to save his soul” while acknowledging his own sinfulness and that he will “die here in the cold”. Later, he sings of hearing “an angel cry”.

Aside from the fact that “Saint Of Me” is a ripping track that pulls deeply from the sound of the Stones in the 1970s (they even bring in Billy Preston on the organ), this is one of Jagger’s best vocals since Exile On Main Street, and one of the most intriguing lyrics he ever wrote. Jagger’s first-person lyrical excursions have included a lot of bluesy myth-making. He was the one who was born in a crossfire hurricane, howling at his mother in the driving rain. He was the one who took on the role of the Devil, and who once hoped that the band wasn’t “a trifle too Satanic”. On “Saint Of Me” he seems to be saying that that wants to join the communion of saints, but that he’s so debauched he’s beyond hope. Even God can’t save him, and the angels weep because of it. The chorus sounds defiant, but in context with the verses it seems more than a little sad, and maybe even a little angry. He wants to be better. He wants to be a saint, but God isn’t helping.

God’s probably not helping because he’s Mick Jagger, the guy who follows up the sad pleas of “Saint Of Me” with the answer “Might As Well Get Juiced.” Why waste His time? Right away, we’re back to the Devil’s music, blues, albeit with a very modern, and not wholly enjoyable, spin. Lyrically, this may as well be Jagger once again taking on the role of the Devil and whispering in the ear of the guy who sang “Saint Of Me”:

If you really want to melt down your mind
Crank it up to straight double time
If you really want to have you some fun
Spit right down on everyone
If you’ve got the strength to scream out Hell why?
The wheel of life is passing you by
You might as well get juiced

The vocals are sleazy, Ron Wood plays some nasty slide guitar, and there’s a sweet blues harp solo from Mick. This is the Stones playing to all of their strengths and yet the song remains simply an interesting experiment. This is the kind of blues the band is capable of doing as well as anyone and better than almost everyone, but Jagger’s desire to remain “current” with the music scene, and his affiliation with producers the Dust Brothers (“They were two stoners; one had the record collection and a bong, the other was the knob turner,” according to an engineer on the sessions), led to the Stones being buried under an avalanche of synthesizer swoops, keyboard farts, and electronic squiggles. The song at the base is so good, and so much in the band’s wheelhouse, that it survives the experiment but it’s easy to understand fans wondering what to make of this sudden swerve into electronic music. Keith Richards hated the production, and once claimed that “there’s a great version” of the song somewhere. Hopefully it will see the light of day. Jagger’s desire to be current has only dated the most timeless music of all, blues.

The band missteps with “Always Suffering”. It’s another Jagger ballad, although not as affecting as “Already Over Me”. Lyrically, it’s the equivalent of trying to talk your way out of being dumped. “Please take these flowers, smell the perfume/Let your soul come alive/Let there be hope, hope in your heart/That our love may revive,” sings Jagger. The song follows a similar musical template to “Already Over Me”, and is close enough that it probably should have been relegated to a B-side or left in the vault. Jagger’s vocal is smooth, and Keith and Ronnie play well together, especially when Ronnie answers Keith acoustic lead with some great pedal steel. But it’s almost five minutes long, and that’s at least a couple of minutes longer than it needs to be.

Fortunately, the band steps right back into the groove with “Too Tight”, a Keith Richards rocker, co-written and sung con brio by Jagger. A warning to a clingy girlfriend, it’s a thrilling riff rocker. The Stones are clearly having a blast with this one, featuring some super piano flourishes by Blondie Chaplin and a terrific guitar solo from Keith. The vocal support is by Bernard Fowler and Blondie Chaplin, but also include Keith’s recognizable rasp that adds the proper amount of grit and makes the song sound more raw than the songs where the band is absent from the backing vocals. Charlie’s in his Human Metronome disguise, providing a crisp snap that propels the song as much as Keith and Ronnie’s guitars.

And that’s how Bridges To Babylon ends.

Not really. But it is how the album should have ended.Unfortunately. In the annals of baffling decisions by the Rolling Stones, ending their best album in nearly twenty years with two consecutive Keith-sung ballads is among the most mystifying.

“Thief In The Night” is more of a soundscape than anything else. The song is built on a guitar riff that originated with Keith’s guitar tech, Pierre de Beauport, who gets a co-writing credit. Keith speak/sings the vocals over a far too prominent Fowler and Chaplin and a percussion track that sounds like a hi-hat factory. Charlie puts in some nice fills, and Keith does a nice acoustic guitar solo that’s buried too low in the mix, but the whole song, including the vocal, sounds improvised. Some last-second horns spice it up a bit but they arrive too late and, like everything else, are buried in a bad mix.

It gets better with the album’s closing track, “How Can I Stop”, the title of which should include a parenthetical (“And the Story Of How I Couldn’t”). The mix here is much better but once again it’s the sound of solo Keith Richards. At nearly seven minutes, it’s one of the longest songs in the Stones studio canon, and while it’s considerably better than the song that precedes it, it still never really achieves liftoff until the end, when Wayne Shorter steps in to play a terrific sax solo and Charlie Watts starts to amp it up a bit. Keith’s vocal is very nice, maybe the perfect vehicle for a song like this, which Jagger probably would have over-emoted. If they’d kept the ending and shaved two minutes off the beginning, “How Can I Stop” would have been a great way to close the album, but every bit as much as Keith Richards, Mick Jagger is the Rolling Stones and keeping both “Thief In The Night” and “How Can I Stop” makes it sound like the band’s frontman took a powder before the album was even finished.

Bridges To Babylon was largely praised by critics, but mostly ignored by the public. At the time it was seen as just product for the next tour, but hindsight reveals it to be a genuinely good album. The running time clocks in at over an hour, but if you remove “Always Suffering”, “Thief In The Night”, and “Anybody Seen My Baby?” the album suddenly bounces up from good to near-great. It’s not Sticky Fingers, or even Some Girls, but it’s as good as, or better, than most of their second-tier albums, and probably the best album of their post-70s career. It’s the 1990s equivalent of Between The Buttons, a lost gem that’s worth discovering. It was also the last Rolling Stones album for nearly a decade.

Grade: B+

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